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ANALYSIS: How the Nets long timeline is likely to drive free agency

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets are becoming one of the youngest teams in the league. After taking two 18-year-olds in the first round of the Draft, they have 12 players between the ages of 18 and 27, including most of the rotation and the player they’ve chosen to build around: 26-year-old Mikal Bridges.

The roster is not complete but don’t expect Brooklyn to do some wholesale switchover as they did two years ago when they brought back only six players from the year before. That was about winning it all, refining the roster. This free agency, barring some surprises, the reverse is likely to be true: that there will be maybe only six new players.

What’s going on in the retool/rebuild of the roster is that there’s a new strategy in place. It involves looking down the road not to Opening Night in late October but two, three years down the road when their core — Bridges, Cam Johnson, Nic Claxton, hopefully Ben Simmons — is more mature, more ready to win, perhaps with another star on the same timeline. It’s all about sustainability.

Again, assuming Johnson re-signs, the Nets find money for Claxton next summer and Simmons is back to where he once was, that timeline now runs three to four years out. Brooklyn’s ownership and management, fresh from their bad experience with superstars, also want to re-establish a culture ... one that may resemble the 2018-19 Nets, aka Brooklyn grit.

Beyond that, avoiding the new CBA’s restrictions is a priority. The Nets will be in the repeater tax this season and next unless they can get under the luxury tax threshold, something not impossible if they can trade Royce O’Neale or Dorian Finney-Smith for pick(s). They are not alone in that regard. The flurry of trades in recent days signals that avoiding taxes and aprons is a priority around the league.

So where does Damian Lillard fit? It would seem that he doesn’t. He’ll be 33 by next season, has missed 93 games over the past four years — 77 in the last two, and is owed more than $216 million on his current contract including a $62.3 million salary in 2026-27 when he’ll be 37. And it should be noted that to get him the Nets would have to give up unprotected first round picks in the years after his mega-deal ends. Is that a wise move? In the NBA, pretty much nothing has a zero percent chance of success, but still...

What’s more likely to unfold in the next few days is that the Nets will be mostly boring. They will await Cam Johnson’s agreement hopefully with them (or another team,) sign mostly vets minimum players, and maybe make a trade or two, using Royce O’Neale or Dorian Finney-Smith as the lure. The priority there will be getting the payroll down and adding another first rounder down the line. There will be a competition in Summer League for the three two-ways with RaiQuan Gray and Jordan Hall, a 21-year-old 6’8” wing who was a Spurs two-way last season, both strong candidates for the open spots.

None of that should suggest that Joe Tsai is unwilling to pay the luxury tax. He has proven he will and has already. The issue is more the declining flexibility big payers will have under the new CBA.

What about some of the players mentioned in various rumors? John Hollinger wrote recently that the likelihood is that Joe Harris will start the year in Brooklyn, his $19.9 million deal not very valuable on the trade market till the February deadline. At that point, expiring deals will have greater value. Cam Thomas? He’s working hard, wants to stay. Will he?

Sean Marks has said repeatedly that he wants to give the “core” another chance but added there will have to be changes and both the new coaching staff and the Nets choices in the Draft argue that he isn’t just blowing smoke. It’s all about development, development, development, not win-now. Yes, he did say that if something presents itself, the Nets will be prepared to move on, but at the moment, Brooklyn looks like it’s sticking to its timeline. Stay tuned.